CRYSTAL LAKE, Ill. — Among the home-schooling community in McHenry County, the reasons behind the decisions are individualized and specific, but the people who have chosen that route of education are far from alone in the process.
For one family, the decision initially was based on finances. For another, it stemmed from disapproval of new state learning standards. A third mother said home-schooling allowed her the freedom to tailor her sons' education.
What they all have in common is that they are part of a larger, very connected network of families in the area that have opted to keep their children home. In general, gone are the days where home-schooling families work independently of one another, especially given the amount of resources and support available, said Tammy Massey, a home-schooling mother in Carpentersville.
"I think it used to be more isolated when it was much less popular and well-known," said Massey, who has home-schooled her two sons, Jordan, 14, and Tyler, 12, since the start of their education.
She was open to all formats of learning but ultimately decided on home-schooling because of the freedom it offered. Massey later joined a support group for home-schooling families, the Barrington-Area Home Schoolers, which is centered in the Crystal Lake area.
The group provides field trip opportunities, advice and general support. Several similar groups also exist for families throughout the county, said Kathy Wentz of Johnsburg, who home-schooled her now-adult children and currently works as a volunteer for the Johnsburg Homeschool Resource Center at the Johnsburg Public Library.
"Today, home-school support groups are much more numerous and much more available to families than they used to be," Wentz said. "And today, we have libraries that are prepared to meet the needs of the home-schooling community.
"When you have something available such as the (Homeschool Resource Center), it becomes so much easier and less expensive to home-school. You can try hundreds of different types of curricula (and) borrow science equipment and math games."
In her volunteer position, Wentz frequently meets with new home-schooling families to answer questions and connect them with these resources.
The number of families that request to meet with Wentz has continued to increase over the years, Wentz said, estimating that she meets with six or seven new families a month. However, she noted that not all are from the McHenry County area.
Nationwide, the most recent data from the U.S. Department of Education show there were an estimated 1.8 million home-schooled students in the spring of 2011, up from 1.5 million in spring 2007.
Locally, there is no definite count of home-schooled students, but in at least the Barrington-Area group, the number of families seeking resources is up, said Massey, the membership coordinator.
"It's around 175 families that I have registered right now," she said. "I think when I first started (six or seven years ago) it was still over 100, but more like 130."
One of the more recent home-schoolers in the area, Erin Carey of Woodstock, made the decision to keep two of her five daughters at home because of the new Common Core State Standards. They have been home-schooled now for about seven months.
"The great thing about the state of Illinois is it's a free state," Carey said, adding that means home-schooled families do not live by the same set of requirements that public school families do.
In Illinois, home-schooled students are considered part of the "private school" category, and while certain subjects must be covered, there essentially is no state intervention.
According to Illinois State Board of Education information, there are no requirements for registering students as home-schoolers, the hours of instruction per day or testing.
For Carey, the independence from the state has meant spending as much time as she wants on subjects her daughters might struggle with, as well as being able to get creative with lessons.
From a big-picture standpoint, however, McHenry County Truancy Officer Bob Diviacchi of the Regional Office of Education said the lack of requirements could be troublesome in certain situations.
Since he started in September 2012, he's received roughly 40 complaints from various sources alleging that home-schooled students are not receiving a proper education. But none of the complaints Diviacchi has received have ever been petitioned in court after parents or guardians have produced proof of schooling - books, workbooks, curriculum, etc.
Even without proof, however, Diviacchi said it would be hard to prosecute a case because of the state's loose standards.
Massey said it's up to each individual family to make sure they're doing their due diligence - she records her kids' lessons as a precaution - but providing a quality education also comes back to the vast network of families in the area.
Talking to other parents dedicated to their child's learning can be helpful when it comes to gauging progress and effectiveness, Massey said, adding, "Those are kind of the subtle pieces (of networking) that you don't think about, but they definitely help."